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WHEN THE WHITE HOUSE WANTS TO KNOW: : A Cloud of New Questions

March 01, 1987|Gaddis Smith | Gaddis Smith teaches history at Yale University. His most recent book is "Morality, Reason, and Power: American Diplomacy in the Carter Years" (Hill & Wang).

NEW HAVEN, CONN. — Can the executive branch of our federal government investigate itself and prose cute wrongdoing among its members? Publication of the Tower Commission report on the Iran- contra affair is an occasion to reflect on this question in historical perspective. Specifically, the Teapot Dome scandal of the 1920s, the Pearl Harbor investigations of the 1940s and Watergate in the 1970s each contain parallels and differences to illuminate the current situation.

Tower shares one characteristic with the early reports initiated by a President in all three comparable situations. It is limited, incomplete and superficial. That statement is not meant as criticism of former Sens. John G. Tower and Edmund S. Muskie and Lt. Gen. Brent Scowcroft, the three panel members who served at the request of President Ronald Reagan. They and their staff did a conscientious, commendable job, given the pressure of time, the limited mandate and the obstacles standing in the way of a truly thorough exploration. Lacking the power of subpoena and the ability to grant immunity, the commission was unable to question former National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter or Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the staff member blamed or credited with so much that he seems to be an entire secret government under one hat. The commission could not trace the diversion of funds, from arms sales to Iran to the contras . It made no effort to investigate the private sources of funds and activity for contra aid.

And above all, Tower, Muskie and Scowcroft consciously avoided trying to determine whether laws had been broken. Yet the heart of this affair is the allegation of irresponsible disregard for law, not simply misuse of the machinery of government. The commission's criticism, devastating as it is, focuses on the way people, from the President down, violated the decision-making process. The commission does condemn the policy of trading arms to Iran to secure release of hostages, but it says little about the secret illegal war against Nicaragua. It criticizes the President for allowing himself to be deceived and inadequately informed by incompetent assistants, but finds no evidence of fundamental wrongdoing on his part.

Previous President-initiated investigations show a similar pattern. In 1921, the first year of President Warren G. Harding's Administration, Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall leased naval oil reserves at a place called Teapot Dome in Wyoming to a private oil developer. There was a public outcry. Harding said the issue would be examined and in due course sent the Senate what he called a "full and comprehensive report" compiled by Fall. Harding said he knew the details and that the transaction "at all times had my entire approval."

Harding, in fact, knew nothing about the deal. His death a year later saved him the embarrassment of explaining his ignorance of what turned out to be heinous corruption. A Senate investigation and a special prosecutor appointed by President Calvin Coolidge discovered that Fall had accepted an enormous bribe in return for jeopardizing national security. The oil lease was voided and Fall went to jail. There is no evidence that Harding was guilty of more than incompetence, and since he was dead there was no investigation of his role.

In December, 1941, the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor left the nation wondering how U.S. forces could have been so unprepared. Who was at fault? President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Supreme Court Justice Owen J. Roberts, who had served as special prosecutor in the Teapot Dome affair, to head an investigation. Former President Herbert Hoover feared "that some admiral or general in the Pacific may be made a goat for action or lack of action higher up, and thus a great injustice done." Hoover was right. Within weeks, Roberts and his commission placed the blame on the Army and Navy commanders in Hawaii. It took five more years and 10 separate investigations, including congressional hearings filling 39 volumes, to demonstrate how broad and deep was the responsibility for 1650813294much responsibility but he died before the congressional investigation.

Watergate, of course, is the most famous political scandal in American history and the only one to bring down a President. We are now constantly admonished not to compare Watergate with the Iran- contra affair, but their investigatory histories have parallels. Shortly after burglars were caught by police at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in June, 1972, the White House denied categorically that anyone working for the President was connected in any way. A Justice Department investigation, touted for its thoroughness, soon reached the same conclusion. It might have ended there but for reporters' persistence and the burglars' unhappiness over what they considered inadequate support from their employers--men indeed in or close to the White House.

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